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Today is a FREE taste of an Insight Politics article by new writer Nathan Smith.
What to Do with Mass Murderers?
Last week, Syrian refugee Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa walked into a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado and killed ten people.
He’s lucky Colorado abolished the death penalty in March last year. But if a lot of Americans got their way, Al-Issa would be up against the wall or strapped onto a gurney with needles hovering over his arm.
I’m tired of it all. The message the death penalty sends is that it’s okay for the state to kill people. But isn’t this the antiseptic version of radicals stoning people to death? Every time one of these cases turns up, there is always a righteous contingent of people who say he deserves to die. It’s nauseatingly ugly. Is that really what we want? Shouldn’t we say all killing is wrong always? Do we have to voluntarily relinquish every inch of moral high ground to satisfy our reptilian brains? Isn’t anyone else sick of it? Every day so-and-so killed so-and-so. Kill kill kill. A bomb today, shootout tomorrow. Ugh, enough already. Everybody just knock it off. Take a time out.
Al-Issa succumbed to rage, greed, addiction, the ghosts of his past and finally to the state. I guess the lesson here is to learn to change the things you can and accept the things you can’t before it’s too late. Don’t wait for your last breath to tell people you love them and mean it. There should be plenty of time for that, but in the end, for all of us, why will it seem like there wasn’t?
But what a rotten existence for someone like Al-Issa. Born into torture, and then at some point to become the torturer. I bet he can’t even remember when he crossed the line. And yet, there’s something so cold and calculated about a death penalty that feels much worse.
It’s a very American thing to make films and buy music idolising gangstas and Mafiosi whose acts of killing are “not personal, it’s just business”. But we put to death the mentally ill, lest they “get off on the insanity defence”. As if the notion of insanity was a clever loophole created by lawyers to annoy the law-abiding.
Colorado was right to abolish the death penalty. Al-Issa is sick, broken, whatever word you want to use. People like that need to be studied because there is much to learn from them. In the past, studies of mental patients with violent, homicidal fantasies revealed many shared a pattern of pyromania, animal abuse and bedwetting. Later, those same three elements, collectively referred to as the homicidal triad, were common characteristics among serial killers and sociopathic people.
But the world is different today and kids don’t play with matches or animals as much as they spend time pursuing strange interests on the internet. Al-Issa is a Muslim. Well, so are a lot of people. He had a history of paranoid, disturbed and antisocial behaviour after being bullied in high school, and his brother was concerned for his mental health. His friend said Al-Issa would talk about how Muslims are treated badly. How many people share all these aspects? He needs to be imprisoned and interviewed for all eternity by countless psychologists and criminologists to find the earlier precursors, the things we can look for in younger children to know that something is wrong, and when to intervene.
Sociopathic killing isn’t a desire, it is a compulsion. And morality has nothing to do with it. Dozens of studies show people will quickly discard their moral code to conform their behaviour to an authority or a social group. Not over a long time, but in a few minutes. Look at the people wearing the masks.
More importantly, sociopaths disregard the moral code. They can’t integrate it into their personality for some reason. They know intellectually that their compulsions are wrong, but that doesn’t change the compulsion, and a set of moral values doesn’t enter into it. Every serial killer knew killing was wrong, but the mentally ill ones felt they had to do it. The compulsion is often a survival instinct. They act violently to protect themselves, or to save themselves from hurt. If that sounds irrational or illogical, that’s because it is. That’s the point.
Imagine if someone broke into your house in the middle of the night. Could you muster up a bit of violence towards him? The sociopath is doing the same thing, but they see themselves as under attack all the time. The point is not that most people keep themselves under control. The world isn’t full of repressed would-be homicidal maniacs. It’s full of people who want things but don’t feel compelled toward them. It is not a question of free will. If the mind of a sociopath is not structured the same as yours, the point is nonsensical. For example, if you hear God telling you to kill, and you believe it is God’s voice, would you ignore him because it’s against the law? Ask Abraham.
Compulsion is different from repression. People have the emotional wherewithal to repress emotions, but they can’t be repressed forever. And worse, repression results in strange behaviour popping up elsewhere: short tempers, difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships, etc. For example, in the homicidal triad the reason children wet the bed, hurt animals and habitually start fires is not that they specifically want to do those things. They are trying to assert control over some powerful, and usually harmful and violent force in their lives which is usually another person.
You might say an abused person should fight back. But you’ll have to explain why so many victims of violence apologise to their attackers during the attack. People make themselves appear weaker and more defenceless as a survival mechanism. They try to make their defeat obvious so the attack will end. Watch mammals fighting in the wild, particularly dogs and wolves. The loser rolls onto his back and presents his vulnerable underbelly to the attacker. This is how the winner knows he has won and the fight is over.
In humans, a violent attack on a child doesn’t end because the attacker is irrational. Why else attack a kid? It is about power. The child, the victim, develops an irrational psychology to complement the attacker’s irrationality. But his mind wants to find a way to control what it can’t. So it tries to master destructive forces (pyromania) and models the attacker’s behaviour (hurting animals) in an attempt to understand it. The bed-wetting is simply an expression of fear and terror. It is expressed when the conscious mind, the part of the mind attempting to control everything, is least in control.
When this child grows up, their mind matures like normal. They reintegrate the aspects of fear and control into rage and the power dynamic into sex which is targeted against others as violence and rape. You don’t think it’s important to know what drives someone to kill ten people, or what early experiences imprinted his behaviour? If you kill him for revenge, you’ll never know the answer.
The best exposition on the insanity defence is in the film M. The climax is a scene in which a killer who preyed on children is on trial by a mob of criminals (his crimes brought so much police attention that it interfered with their outlaw livelihoods). The lawyer argues in his defence that the killer is mad and that his madness compels him to do this. Killing a child settles the accused’s mind, if only briefly. But the lawyer then questions the mafia’s right to try him. They are not crazy but choose to kill and steal anyway. Who is the more responsible, the more guilty? The one whose madness drives him to kill, or the one who chooses to kill? There is no better summary of the core philosophical question than that scene. What is the purpose of the law? To punish wrong choices? To isolate the threatening element? To rehabilitate? To avenge?
Fritz Lang wrote that scene in 1931. In Germany. Six years later a mob of criminals would take over the country, and history would prove him correct. Criminals who choose to kill are worse than the crazed lunatics. And here we are 90 years later having the same conversation. He’s a monster, he should have controlled himself, we could all end up like that, we could never end up like that.
A disturbing amount of American society is sitting with Fritz Lang’s mob, quick to render judgment over a man’s sickness. We all have the benefit of emotional distance – we don’t know the killer or the victims. But why don’t we take advantage of this distance to be merciful? Why are so many ready to throw the switch? Isn’t wishing someone dead the same as wishing to kill them? Part of me thinks they should put plastic on the courtroom floor and shoot him in the face seconds after the trial ends. But that part of me is never allowed to be in charge.
Be wary of giving the state the power to kill your fellow man because your fellow man might be giving the state the same power to kill you. There’s free, there’s dead. And there’s the government that represents you when it does the killing.
That’s why the whole pro-life/pro-death thing is such a great hypocrisy. If you want to preserve all life, then that includes the horrible ones too. But, as always, it’s really about power – power over women in the former case and power over the poor/ignorant/mentally ill in the latter. People rally to these causes not out of some moral imperative but to be on the side of power. To feel, if only subconsciously and for a moment, the power to judge and control others.
Al-Issa grew up in a strange American culture. You can’t show nudity in art on TV, but you can show simulated decaying corpses and first-person axe-to-skull blows every week on TV. There’s even a term for “cartoon violence” to define extreme violence without realistic consequences. And most people are comfortable showing it to their children. Why does that seem reasonable?
I say let Al-Issa rot in prison. Maybe he’ll someday realise the horror of what he’s done and then those memories will haunt him for the rest of his life. That’s his private hell. Killing him doesn’t help anyone. Enter life as a piece of crap, exit it as a piece of crap. God bless America.
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